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Joe Biden inherits a divided United States

13 November 2020

The US’s Byzantine system makes it hard to know whether a Democrat president can make a difference, says Harriet Baber

AS I write, four days after election day, Joseph Biden has just been declared winner of the 2020 presidential election.

Meanwhile, the apocalypse proceeds apace, as armed partisans demonstrate in major American cities. President Trump, for his part, in a statement issued from his Virginian golf course, has accused the Democratic Party of “wrongdoing”. His legal team has initiated lawsuits alleging corruption and demanding ballot recounts, some of which have already been dismissed. Legal experts agree that none will change the results of the election. Biden will be inaugurated on 20 January 2021 as the 46th President of the United States.

The worst-case scenario has been avoided. But Mr Biden inherits ongoing and likely escalating civil unrest, hurricanes and forest fires sparked by climate change, a pandemic out of control, and, from President Trump — who, during the last election declared himself “the King of Debt” — a massive deficit. Perhaps more importantly, he inherits a conservative Supreme Court and, probably, a divided legislature with a Republican-majority Senate, which could thwart any efforts to achieve substantive goals.


THE Byzantine American system aimed at balancing the powers of executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government promotes gridlock when government is politically divided.

What could Mr Biden, as President, do with a divided legislature and conservative judiciary? Could he could rejoin the Paris climate agreement? Yes. That does not require Senate approval. He could not, however, legislate a carbon price. That would be blocked by the Republican-majority Senate. Could he, as President, issue executive orders to implement a range of new regulatory measures? Yes. But his executive orders, subject to judicial review, could be overturned by the conservative Supreme Court.

Could that conservative Supreme Court prohibit abortion? No. Policies regarding the availability of abortion services are the business of the states that, in our Byzantine system, have considerable autonomy to determine policy in their bailiwicks. The Supreme Court’s ruling in Roe v. Wade mandates access to abortion as a constitutional right, overriding the rights of the states to establish policy (Comment, 2 October). If it is overturned, the states will still be free to maintain access to abortion if they choose. And most states, including all the most populous states, will keep abortion legal.

The upshot is that, because the purview of US government branches is fluid, and because we cannot predict what compromises, if any, a Democratic executive will be able to negotiate with a divided legislature and conservative judiciary, we do not know whether, or to what extent, a Democratic president can make a difference.


WE DO know that the political division that has set us against one another will persist. It reflects a deep cultural divide between socially liberal upper-middle-class Americans and President Trump’s socially conservative working-class base, who look to him to support their economic interests.

During the late 20th century, while well-paid blue-collar jobs disappeared, the Democratic Party, embracing Third Way neo-liberalism and preoccupied with environmentalism, abortion, and sexuality issues, did little to address working-class Americans’ pressing economic concerns. So, increasingly, working-class Americans looked to the Republican Party to bring back “men’s jobs” in manufacturing and mining, and to restore prosperity.

Of course, Republicans did no better for the working class or for the economic well-being of most Americans. And that should not have been a surprise since, historically, Democrats have done better for the economy than Republicans. Since the Second World War, real GDP has grown about 1.6 times faster under Democratic presidents, and private-sector job growth has been nearly 2.5 times faster than it was during Republican administrations.

Most Americans, however, were convinced that Republicans, including President Trump, were good for the economy. The Republican Party was “the party of business”. And voters testified that they supported Mr Trump because he was a businessman and would, therefore, be good for the economy. He, for his part, promised a revival of smoke-stack industries and a bonanza of grunt-work for working-class males — but did not deliver. Still, his supporters were unfazed, convinced that things would have been even worse under a Democratic regime. The Republican Party, Americans believed, was the Daddy Party that brought home the bacon.

As the election approached, however, and then while votes were being counted, President Trump’s Republican supporters in government peeled off. Since then, none has shown any serious interest in supporting his attempts to challenge the results of the election, because he has done his job. He has transformed the Republican Party into a populist party, similar to Europeans’ right-wing parties such as Law and Justice in Poland and Fidesz in Hungary, and has cemented working-class support for the Republican Party. Mission accomplished.

And so President Trump is now politically irrelevant. But, unless the forthcoming Democratic administration can deliver for the working class, culture wars will continue, and the US will be paralysed by hyper-politicisation.


Dr Harriet Baber is Professor of Philosophy at the University of San Diego, in the United States.

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